You may be surprised to learn that a living cannabis plant contains almost no cannabinoids. But it’s absolutely true – the cannabis plant actually produces a set of chemical “precursors” to cannabinoids, which are classified as “cannabinoid acids”.
These cannabinoid acids gradually break down to become cannabinoids over time, and with exposure to warmth and light. This process – which is known as decarboxylation – takes a long time to complete, and even after your cannabis is harvested, dried and cured, the level of cannabinoid acids may exceed the level of cannabinoids. It may take months for the process of decarboxylation to fully complete in a sample of cannabis in “normal” storage conditions!
Usually, when you then smoke or vape your cannabis, the process of decarboxylation rapidly completes due to exposure to very hot temperatures. However, if you prefer to consume cannabis in ways that do not make use of intense heat, for example with edibles, topicals and capsules, then you may be consuming cannabis that has not decarboxylated fully.
Depending on your needs, this could be a good or bad thing. For medical patients with certain conditions, consuming cannabinoid acids in their raw form – most notably, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) – may provide various medicinal benefits. You can read more about some of those conditions in our guide, What Is THCA? and find out more about how to obtain these cannabinoid acids in Why You Might Want To Try Juicing Raw Cannabis.
But for most recreational users (and many medicinal patients too) it’s more important to get the full range and concentration of the cannabinoids themselves, and not the acids. THCA, the cannabinoid acid that degrades to THC after decarboxylation, does not have the same psychoactive effect as THC, so it’s not as desirable – for obvious reasons.
As we mentioned, smoking or vaping completes the process – but if you are using cannabis in certain forms that do not involve hot temperatures, how do you ensure that you maximize cannabinoid levels and convert as much of the cannabinoid acids as possible?
The answer is controlled decarboxylation at a specific temperature range – widely agreed to be around 100-150 C / 220-310 F. The time needed to complete decarboxylation depends on the temperature – at the hotter end of the range, you should leave your cannabis for just 10 minutes or so, while at the lower end, you may need to leave it for up to 60 minutes.
Typically, most people use a regular oven to decarboxylate their cannabis. First, the cannabis should be lightly ground, then thinly spread over a silicone or metal baking sheet, preferably using a piece of baking parchment. Then it can be decarboxylated (“decarbed”) for the required time.
Otherwise, it is possible to decarboxylate cannabis using a hot oil or hot water bath – but using these methods, it’s crucial to have a watertight, heatproof container to keep your cannabis in!
This is just a brief introduction to the concept of decarboxylation. If you have feedback, questions or suggestions, please let us know in the comments!